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SecondaryMaths

Dyscalculia, anxiety, motivation – Why are students not engaging with your maths lessons?

If your maths lessons simply aren’t cutting through to students, it could well be one of several causes that’s to blame, says Jemma Sherwood

Jemma Sherwood
by Jemma Sherwood
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SecondaryMaths

It’s Wednesday afternoon and you’re waiting for your Y7 class to come in from lunch.

You know there are four or five students in the class who are going to give up today, probably before they’ve even started: “This is too hard.‘ “I don’t get it.” “I can’t do maths.

It’s not that they can’t be bothered and are making excuses. It’s more that they have a wall up when it comes to maths. One gets in a muddle with calculations and forgets where they were, while the others simply shut down during most lessons. What causes these kinds of responses?

Is it dyscalculia?

Students who struggle to subitise, count backwards, remember their tables – however much they practise – or get lost in multi-step questions may be suffering from dyscalculia.

Closely related to dyslexia, this is a specific learning difficulty associated with understanding numbers. Dyscalculia affects an estimated 5% of the population, and while research around it in its infancy, we know it’s a likely factor in some students’ lack of achievement.

Lack of motivation?

Students who lack motivation in mathematics tend to say they find it difficult or confusing. Motivation is difficult to engender, and students can take the easy option of saying, “Maths just isn’t my thing.” We know, however, that those who feel successful in maths show more intrinsic motivation, so it’s a good bet that as we work on students’ mathematics confidence, their motivation should follow.

Feelings of anxiety?

“You’re a maths teacher, you work out the bill.” Six faces watch as I try to divide the total by seven, and all of a sudden my brain shuts down and a mental fog descends. I grab my phone, blaming it on my tiredness. I knew precisely how to work this out, but under the gaze of people expecting me to do it quicker than them, I froze.

If that can happen to me, an experienced maths teacher, how much more likely is it that students lacking my confidence will experience something similar in the classroom?

Maths anxiety is observable and commonplace, yet we don’t know the cause. It’s often associated with subjective feelings of poor historical performance (‘subjective’ because higher attainers aren’t immune), and more commonly reported in girls than boys. It can make students avoid doing maths and reduce performance, thus increasing their anxiety further and establishing a vicious cycle.

What can we do?

Our students need to feel successful in mathematics. We need to teach them where they are, gradually taking them from something they can already do to something new. If we don’t, they’ll fall at the first hurdlem, so find out what they can do and go from there.

Pay attention to working memory. Anxiety reduces it, dyscalculia is associated with weaknesses in it. Keep presentation materials free of clutter and easy to follow. Model the mathematics live, rather than clicking through the steps. Students need to see how it’s done in real time.

With multi-step processes, introduce them gradually. Give students opportunities to practise component parts before putting everything together. Backwards-fading can be a powerful tool – instead of 10 questions, provide all steps, bar the last, in question 1. Then all steps bar the final two in question 2. Continue to fade out until they’re completing questions without any scaffold.

If you have pupils who are scared of making errors, let them work with mini whiteboards or on tables with drywipe pens. Once you’ve got them trying, gradually transition them to paper so that they no longer see their books as evidence of failure, but as tools to help them think.

Messages count

Don’t inadvertently transmit anxiety-inducing messages. Avoid throwaway comments such as, ‘This bit’s hard’, or ‘You might struggle with this.” Show students that you value mathematical thinking over calculation speeds, and praise them when they engage in mathematical thought – not just when they’re correct.

Use your questioning to demonstrate that you value solutions and processes over final answers. Once they’re happy to engage in the process, the answers will come.

Jemma Sherwood is the senior lead practitioner for mathematics at Ormiston Academies Trust

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